Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh broke out July 31, and skirmishes have continued ever since. More people have been killed or injured in this outbreak of violence than in any incident since the two countries ended their war over the territory in 1994. Many observers wonder whether a new round of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is possible.
Stratfor believes that such a war is unlikely primarily because Russia is Armenia's security guarantor; starting a conflict with Armenia is tantamount to starting a conflict with Russia. That is not a war Baku can win. This dynamic has kept the conflict frozen for the past two decades, and Russia has kept this balance of power intact by supplying weapons to both sides, among other actions. However, this is not to say that the situation cannot change, particularly since the Caucasus region has seen some significant geopolitical shifts over the past two years. The recent spike in violence is an important development, but it creates more questions than answers.
Foremost among those questions is: Who is responsible for initiating the violence? Each side has blamed the other for starting the fight. Armenian officials accused Azerbaijani saboteurs of crossing into their territory, while Azerbaijani officials made similar claims against the Armenians. With conflicting reports and accusations flying, it is difficult to say which side is correct.
Skirmishes between Armenia and Azerbaijan did not just start last week; they have been going on nearly uninterrupted for the past two decades. The intensity of the fighting has fluctuated, but tensions have simmered ever since Russia brokered a cease-fire to end the war over Nagorno-Karabakh 20 years ago. Just last year, 19 fatalities were reported between the two sides as a result of cross-border skirmishes, and 35 people were killed in the same kind of fighting in 2012. What has occurred over the past week is not an unusual violation of the cease-fire — which both sides have broken repeatedly — but rather a sudden and sharp escalation.
This raises another important question: Why now? Here, too, there is much speculation but little evidence. Local media reports from Azerbaijan have offered many theories. Some say Russia is using the tension to compel Azerbaijan to join Moscow's Eurasian Union. Others say Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to soften his image by presenting Russia as an arbiter in the conflict. On the Armenian side, there is fear that Russia has made a deal with Azerbaijan to switch its support from Yerevan to Baku to help curb Azerbaijan's increasingly stronger ties with the West.
All of these are technically possible, yet all are problematic. Azerbaijan's national strategy is characterized by the need to balance between regional powers; joining the Eurasian Union would greatly upset this balance. While Russia's relationship with the West has certainly been damaged by Ukraine, conflict mediation in Nagorno-Karabakh would likely do little to improve Putin's image. And for Russia to support Azerbaijan at the expense of Armenia would incite greater hostilities between the two countries than the current skirmishes. Indeed, it is just as likely that a tactical order given by either the Armenian or Azerbaijani military got out of hand, without a deliberate policy move initiated by either side.
Although the cause for the escalation of violence remains unclear, what is clear is that Russia is the most important player involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Only Russia can fundamentally alter the state of the conflict; neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is in a position to challenge Russia militarily over the region.
On Aug. 8-9, the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents are scheduled to travel to Sochi to meet with Putin (and perhaps each other) to discuss the conflict. Leading up to this meeting, we will be watching for:
- Any indication that the recent flare-up was a deliberate policy move by Armenia, Azerbaijan or Russia, or in line with the ongoing skirmishes in recent years
- Any proposals calling for Russia to increase its involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh, whether as part of a peacekeeping force or in other contexts
- Any advancement in parallel negotiations between Russia and Armenia or Russia and Azerbaijan regarding energy, defense and economic cooperation
- Reactions and shifts in position from other major players in the Caucasus, including Turkey, Iran, the United States and the European Union